The rejection of the StuffMe merger request will have consequences, but it should also push NZ media’s Big Two into looking for smarter opportunities for news, writes Troy Rawhiti-Forbes
People in media can’t stay away from a media story, but it’s hard to disagree that the implications of the rejected NZME-Fairfax merger application go beyond the industry. There’s been a lot of introspection but it’s not too different to the semi-regular stories about the state of the dairy, telecommunications, or energy industries. Those stories are usually served with a side of economic instability or government intervention.
But if media’s going to hell in a handbasket, then our democracy is set to burn – or so we are told.
The introduction to Spinoff editor Duncan Greive’s analysis of the failed StuffMe merger reads: “The Commerce Commission decision appears based on a naive assumption that because news is important it will always be made.”
This is a laser-guided observation. News is not so important that the industry can’t go out of business. But there has been another assumption at work: Because news is important, it should always be made. It’s the stick we use to keep the bastards honest, it’s vital to the country.
Is it really?
I think it is. I’d say everyone on this site and others like it would agree. This is an assurance, and a problem. Sometimes we journalists hold our industry in too high a regard, and it’s been strange to see two media heavyweights argue for services to New Zealand when first impressions (ie. homepage visits) suggest a different priority: Staying in business.
You won’t see the syndicated stories in the montage reels before each Canon Media Awards dinner, but they’re on those homepages every day, branded with authority.
So the question isn’t whether quality journalism is in the public interest, but whether it holds enough of the public’s interest to remain viable.
Serious journalism has found a reputation as the Brussels sprout of the information diet. Some people like the taste of those cabbagey things, while others tolerate them for the nutritional value, and a fair few more will ignore them – distracted by the chicken nuggets.
The last time I saw the “most read” module on nzherald.co.nz, the winner was a story about a woman who had a photo of herself printed on a t-shirt, later stashed in her boyfriend’s luggage before he took off for his stag function. The runner-up was a piece out of the USA about an argument between a bereaved family and a funeral home over whether the correct corpse was in the coffin. The rest were similar snacks – and it wasn’t overly different at Stuff. It hardly ever is.
Don’t stop me if you think you’ve read this before. You almost certainly have. It’s been a common criticism since long before the merger proposition. NZME and Fairfax, guided by analytics, doubled-down on their chicken nugget menu long ago, apparently happy to let readers push their greens around the plate until something had to give.
To nobody’s surprise, that something looks certain to be jobs. What is astonishing is while the old media model buckles under the weight of the 21st century’s ceaseless disruption, the leadership won’t buckle and if necessity is the mother of invention, the corporate parents have left their kids in the casino carpark while they gamble with the futures of hundreds of editorial staff.
Meanwhile Radio New Zealand, with a public mandate and a pittance to work with, have gone the other way – their continuous approach to innovating with low resources is admirable. They’ve chosen to disrupt, rather than continually submit to being disrupted.
What if it all disappeared? If the nation’s commercial newsrooms shut down tomorrow, as we’ve been warned could happen over time, would it make a difference to New Zealand?
I’m not asking as a devil’s advocate, I’m posing a challenge to an industry that has more to worry about than Facebook and Google’s stranglehold on advertising revenue. As cost-effectiveness and relevance goes, it makes perfect sense for an advertiser to buy into Facebook. The tools exist there to target customers with minimum effort and a lower investment, with tighter control over their ads.
It makes life hard for businesses still partying like it’s 1999, particularly as the definition of “competition” is so very blurred. It’s not just about competition for revenue, it’s also about eyeballs and access.
New Zealand’s professional sports teams – and individual athletes – have been surgically removing media from the middle for years. They’ve got YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter for that. (Hashtag: No filter.) The fans lap it up because it’s media made for them. The news sites embed it with neat new headlines, but everyone knows where it came from.
I’m told live blogs of Joseph Parker’s boxing mismatches and rugby tests do well for traffic. I don’t doubt this at all, since it’s about the only way – short of following other fans’ comments on Twitter as I do for rugby league – to get legitimate access to a pay-per-view or subscription TV event without paying unreasonable sums.
Political parties continue to indulge the Gallery with pressers and stand-ups, but their own digital storytelling will do significant heavy lifting this year. For some voters, it will be enough to see Taika Waititi in a video for the Greens. Others will be assured by Labour’s easy-share Twitter graphics. Thinking voters, the ones who rely on media analysis, may be a mile away from deciding where their vote will go – but for people who back their parties like a sports fan backs their team, it’s just another year in the bubble.
There’s still time to burn in this election year but I don’t think it’s strange that the best political journalism so far has had very little to do with contemporary party politics. Radio NZ and this site have done well by the public with their respective 9th Floor and Watchdogs series. The former, a Guyon Espiner-fronted set of interviews with New Zealand’s pre-Key Prime Ministers, is a world-class project which has put almost 40 years’ worth of recent history into sobering context. In the latter, Newsroom’s Shane Cowlishaw has met with New Zealand’s principal public commissioners and, like Espiner, probed their minds deeply.
It has been refreshing to see people of high experience and authority speaking calmly and freely, without the pressure of a click-and-forget news cycle.
There used to be talk that our newspapers would take a similar approach: Let the websites do high turnover stuff, and the papers would be like The Economist, providing the analysis necessary for readers to be informed as well as entertained. A few years ago it seemed like a great idea. Now, with the world even deeper into the digital age, it feels like putting a new hat on the town crier long after the printing press has come to the village.
Businesses have responsibilities to more than their shareholders. They owe it to their employees to operate with fairness and clarity, regardless of the industry, and here’s what I hope for journalism in New Zealand: That the Big Two don’t waste this opportunity to smarten-up with whatever resources – people and platforms – they have after the inevitable pain is over. If that means being small but mighty, and rethinking the revenue model, then do it. If it means taking another look at distribution, as Anna Connell suggests, then get in there and do some homework. There is an appetite for quality. Make it count.
There’s no sense in clinging to a way of doing things which has already come undone.
In the Sunday Star-Times, a Fairfax publication, Rod Oram (also a contributor to Newsroom) hailed the Commission’s decision and called for a renewed focus on good journalism over corporate coupling as the industry’s solution. The Herald’s Kirsty Johnston, whose truly excellent journalism lives on the Herald site, saw an implication that the StuffMe allies weren’t producing the goods. I won’t speak for Oram, or Johnston, but I read it as one of many calls to prioritise the good work buried under the rest.
Steve Braunias, also of the Herald, recalled a panel discussion with Oram: “His solution was that we basically go out and beg for pennies.”
If that’s what it takes, so be it. Journalism can’t continue like this. Besides, upstarts like this site and Braunias’ other home, the Spinoff, have been singing for their suppers since their very recent births.
And so, with my sincerest apologies to Don McLean:
So why, why did the media die?
Got too Daily with the Mail, put the news out of sight
While them girls and boys were searching Facebook for text
Headline: “You won’t believe what happens next”
“You won’t believe what happens next”
I can’t remember if I cried
When I read about a merger denied
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died